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Mary, the unsmiling North London checkout girl in Shaun of the Dead, is not feeling herself. She’s somehow ended up in the back yard of roommates Shaun and Ed, who have just recently waked up after a late night of drinking. The pair, hung over and wearing the previous day’s clothes, call out to Mary, who’s slump-shouldered and facing the opposite direction, then toss a rock at her. Mary slowly turns herself around, moaning all the while, revealing a once-pretty face now puffy and grotesque. Her lips are strangely twisted. Her limbs move in a most unnatural way.
Shaun and Ed gasp, finally understanding what’s going on. Or maybe not: “Oh. My. God,” Shaun whispers. “She’s so drunk!”
Nearly all of SOTD’s humor, courtesy of British writer-director Edgar Wright and his co-writer and star, Simon Pegg, comes from the rather inspired hypothesis that zombies are already all around us. Shaun (Pegg) is a 29-year-old loser who punches a clock at an electronics store by day; at night, he drags his unhappy girlfriend, Liz (Kate Ashfield), to neighborhood pub the Winchester, where he can down pints and also hang out even more with the slovenly, jobless Ed (Nick Frost). Shaun can’t remember to buy his mum flowers and doesn’t keep his promises to Liz, who breaks up with him when he fails to make reservations for what was supposed to be their relationship-recharging anniversary dinner.
While Shaun wanders the streets between home, work, pub, and the local convenience store, he’s too wrapped up in his own worries to notice a slight change in the ’hood—specifically, that’s it’s becoming increasingly overrun by zombies. In fact, when the undead begin to replace the zoned-out commuters at bus stops or the slightly pushy bums shuffling down the road, the difference is essentially negligible.
In other words, this isn’t quite the apocalypse as imagined by George A. Romero—though Wright and Pegg, best known as the creators of the BBC sitcom Spaced, do allow their “romantic zombie comedy” to pay glancing homage to the Dawn of the Dead director. Of course, they tweak his zombie metaphor to represent apathy instead of consumerism and have their ever-smaller group of survivors—besides Shaun, Ed, and Liz, Shaun’s mother, Barbara (Penelope Wilton), and Liz’s roommates, David (Dylan Moran) and Dianne (The Office’s Lucy Davis)—hole up not in a mall, but in a more English place of comfort: the pub. The script is loaded with gags both dry and silly, such as Dianne’s admonishment to the bickering group that “moaning won’t get you anywhere,” giving her the idea to lead them in zombie-mimicry lessons. A nearby zombie, conveniently impaled against a tree for study, is described as looking “drunk—and he’s lost a bet!”
But for all its jokes, SOTD also takes seriously the “romantic” and “zombie” parts of its tag line. Shaun’s troubled relationship with Liz—and with stepfather Philip (Bill Nighy), and David and Dianne, and uptight roomie Pete (Peter Serafinowicz), and even Ed—becomes a reason for him to prove himself a hero, especially when the torch David has been carrying for Liz leads to increased tension as survival seems less likely. Shaun’s grand plan isn’t really that grand—“Take car. Go to Mum’s. Kill Phil (‘Sorry’). Grab Liz. Go to the Winchester, have a nice cold pint, and wait for all of this to blow over”—but that seems to be the point: Is it so wrong to want to just kick back with loved ones, especially after a trying “Z-Day”?
The scene in which most of those issues come to a head is a surprising and unwelcome shift in tone, but Wright and Pegg soon get back to what they do best: having fun with flesh-eaters. But if the characters’ reactions to the old-school, slow-moving zombies are overwhelmingly comic (“They were a bit bitey,” Barbara says of some mysterious intruders early on), the inevitable onslaught is played straight enough to spook, just a little. And effects that were initially Scary Movie–jokey (a rushed close-up to a flushed toilet, say, or a loaf of bread) eventually become gut-spillingly earnest (prosthetic effects with a touch of CGI).
Pegg and Frost are lovable, low-key losers, while the rest of the cast is equally adept with characters more well-rounded than those of most horror movies—or, for that matter, most romantic comedies. Cinematographer (and John Carpenter’s Vampires vet) David M. Dunlap, meanwhile, gives them a convincingly humdrum atmosphere to muddle through: a little gray and a touch grimy, yet still kinda homey. With all due respect to Romero—who is reported to have seen Shaun of the Dead and given the filmmakers his blessing—the script’s question of who exactly is “fucking king of the zombies” may have a new answer.
Wimbledon’s setup is actually quite similar to Shaun of the Dead’s: Paul Bettany plays an unremarkable tennis pro taunted by his younger peers; Kirsten Dunst is the hideous monster he needs to stay away from. This being a traditional romantic comedy, however, the ensuing horror is obviously unintentional.
Working from a script by a trio of writers (Adam Practical Magic Brooks and Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin, scripters of Madeline), director Richard Loncraine stuffs his film with an unbearable—and, at times, unbelievable—amount of googly eyes and gaggy conversation. The foolishness begins early, with Peter Colt (Bettany) arriving in London for his last Wimbledon match and mistakenly walking into the hotel room of the up-and-coming Lizzie Bradbury (Dunst), who’s taking a shower with the bathroom door open. He gawks; she looks over and serenely asks, “Do you need something?” Smiling all the while, naturally: True love means never having to bat an eyelash when a stranger invades your privacy.
Lizzie later admonishes, “Love means nothing in tennis,” but, as in any competitive sport, sex sure does. The pair fall immediately for each other, so Wimbledon’s tension lies in whether their coupling will cramp either of their games. While Peter goes on a winning streak, Lizzie falters, thereby intensifying the firm grip of her overbearing father, Dennis (a throwaway turn by Sam Neill). Dennis’ meddling interrupts the lovers’ nights of soulful stares and comet-watching, and soon Peter is reduced to climbing trellises and reasoning with dogs.
Despite his character’s embarrassing antics, Bettany makes an attractive romantic lead as well as a likable underdog, successfully transferring the unaffected charm he’s shown in A Beautiful Mind and Master and Commander to lighter fare. Dunst, unfortunately, fully brings on the smarm that she’s mostly just hinted at before (and managed to bury quite nicely in the Spider-Man movies). Her Lizzie is cocky and self-involved—a problem exacerbated by her irritatingly clanky dialogue, which is supposed to be quick-witted and flirty but is so unrealistically cutesy you’ll want to claw Lizzie’s eyes out. The difference in the actors’ presence—and their 11-year age gap, which might not be remarkable if Dunst weren’t only 22—makes their characters’ romance seem all the more questionable: Peter is a fully mature man; Lizzie is still an annoying daddy’s girl.
Wimbledon is much more palatable when it’s focused on the competition, and Loncraine gets in a few stellar scenes from the court, dropping the usual drama-enhancing score so you hear only the thwack of the ball and the crowd’s hush. In fact, in its final 30 minutes, the movie becomes less about the affair and more about Peter’s quest to win the big prize. Though, because this is a romantic comedy, it’s no spoiler to say that love—y’know, the kind that means nothing in tennis—does rear its ugly head once again. And that’s when we all lose.CP